Malaysia’s prescient prime minister

Malaysia’s seventh prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is in the global spotlight this week as world leaders gather for the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

Read his full speech to the assembly here.

It’s a somewhat surreal turn of events for the 93-year-old, having retired 15 years ago as one of Asia’s longest serving leaders. When Malaysians voted for a new government on May 9, Dr Mahathir was ushered in as the country’s new leader.

In selling the “new Malaysia”, where corruption is not to be condoned, incompetence unacceptable and constructive criticism welcomed, Dr Mahathir is telling the world that Malaysians want a country that “will speak its mind on what is right and what is wrong, without fear or favour”.

However here at home in Malaysia, the reformation is easier said than done. This week there have been fierce criticisms – from both sides of the political divide – over the Federal Court’s judgment allowing the government to sue individuals for defamation.

But we digress…

Aviation aficionado

There have been many not so endearing words in the past four decades that people have used to disparage Dr Mahathir. Amongst them were: cunning, destructive, dictator, maverick, racist, recalcitrant, ruthless… the list goes on.

We’d like to add another (not disparaging) word to this list – aficionado.

More specifically: aviation aficionado.

Before he left for the UK and the US this week, Dr Mahathir invited us and our colleagues and other partners in the industry to his office at Putrajaya to discuss a topic that is close to his heart: the airline industry.

The prime minister is someone who has a very deep and keen interest in aviation, with a commercial and technical understanding of the business that will put some airline CEOs to shame.

We were initially given just half an hour for the meeting, but such was his attentiveness and curiosity and zest for the industry that our conversation lasted 100 minutes – over three times the allotted time!

This was not lost on one of his aides who jokingly pointed out the PM gave the head of a neighbouring country less than 30 minutes.

In a nutshell, Dr Mahathir wanted to know more about Malaysia’s aviation industry and in particular, Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB).

We discussed several wide-ranging issues related to the national flag carrier that coincidentally, had posted a MYR812 million loss in financial year 2017. In fact MAB has registered almost MYR2.4 billion losses in the three years since it was restructured (2015-17) at a cost of MYR6 billion to the government.

Not one to mince words, the premier was visibly dismayed and asked for recommendations and suggestions on how to resolve the problems.

This is, after all, a man who not only knew the differences between various types of commercial and private jet aircraft, but surprised us with his intimate knowledge of airline economics.

For example, we talked about the rising cost of fuel and borrowing. He probed about debts, queried about payments for personnel and sought suggestions on what would be the optimum network system or which aircraft would best suit MAB.

He regaled us with his airline experience from the past, how he had helped shaped the national airline into a world-class carrier that spanned all continents (he regrets Latin America and South Africa are no longer on the MAB network). He even knew, at the top of his head, how many crew changes were required on certain intercontinental flights.

Tun M E2 - h

“MAS can go very wrong”

Needless to say, the prime minister pays very close attention to Malaysia’s aviation industry.

He had been a vocal critic of MAB and its stakeholder Khazanah Nasional for many years. In this 2014 post Dr Mahathir provided a scathing critique of the privatization of the flag carrier and reiterated it again during our conversation.

And in late 2014 the premier, who has an uncanny ability to visualize and anticipate future events, bluntly called Malaysians “stupid” and unable to run an airline (other than to run it to the ground), following MAB’s decision to appoint its first foreign CEO.

chedet on MAS privatisation


During the dialogue the prime minister also encouraged us to look into ways to improve the aviation landscape in Malaysia, by exploring all avenues to upgrade the industry, including airports, maintenance, repair & overhaul (MRO), and to develop ideas that would revive the national airline.

His view of aviation is one that is pivotal to Malaysia’s economy and GDP (about 3.5%) and therefore, always in need of innovation and investments.

The PM’s parting shot: scrutinise the local airlines, don’t be afraid to speak out, keep him updated and we shall meet again in the near future.

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